"Sustained by love...yes, yes, I can see that," Royal Magician Manfred Riesling said, nodding his head. "It's basic alchemical theory, in its way. The creations of alchemy are outside of the bounds of natural life. They exist in accordance with the natural law, but are not actually part of nature. Thus they are not God's creations, receiving the blessings of His love."
Master Riesling, Amoretta Virgine thought, looked like a man for whom theology was natural. His plump figure and sober attire suggested a well-fed abbot. Though well into his fifties his neatly trimmed beard was still red, but his hair was thinning and added to the clerical impression by hinting at a tonsure. Amoretta knew that was deceptive, though, as far from being monklike Riesling was a married man with four children, some of whom had even rendered him a doting grandfather.
"How is it, I wonder, that we'd never thought of this before?" he continued.
"Probably it's because most alchemical creations don't continue to exist for long enough for it to matter. Created life is fragile, not robust in the way that which expresses itself through nature is."
Riesling flinched a little at her matter-of-fact tone. A theoretical discussion of magic was one thing, but he could not simply brush aside that the ash-blonde girl he sat across the tea-table from was herself an alchemical creation, a homunculus crafted by Chartreuse Grande. She was unlike other homunculi, able to exist freely outside the flask containing her life-sustaining magical processes, because she had been built around an angel's spirit as a stable core. That had not worked out quite as Dr. Chartreuse had intended, as Amoretta had no memory from before her present existence and so was very far from being a vessel of holy wisdom.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to disturb you. Lillet always tells me that I'm too casual with the truth for most people's comfort." She frowned, almost pouting. "I'm not sure I'll ever understand that."
Riesling smiled at her.
"Well, just as you alchemical creations have fragile lives, we humans have fragile souls, not accustomed to facing too much unpleasantness at once. But if you aren't squeamish about your existence so that you're willing to discuss it with me, then the least I can do is to honor that. And of course, you're quite right. Much of alchemy, even when we use it to accomplish tasks, is still rooted in experimentation and learning. Human knowledge is limited; getting beyond the ethical and moral questions of what we can know or should know, there is the very practical question of what we do know."
He plucked a macaroon off the tea tray. The cookies came from the Royal House of Magic's dining hall, but the tea had been brewed by Gaff, Lillet Blan's servant elf.
"Still and all," he continued, "in hindsight, it's quite obvious. So in essence, Mistress Blan is literally key to your existence."
"That's what I've been saying, yes."
She picked up her cup and took a delicate sip, then replaced it in the saucer.
"But it isn't actually any kind of bond between you in the sense of a master and familiar or other, similar tie?"
Amoretta shook her head.
"No, it's strictly a matter of emotion. I...I can sense her feelings within me, but..." She paused, thinking of a good analogy. "Well, it's like if there was a fire in the fireplace. You can stand next to the fire and be warmed by it, or walk away and not be, but the fire doesn't control you except by the effect having its heat has on your behavior. And similarly, the fire burns based on the laws of combustion, not whether you are or aren't there to feel its warmth, and you'd have to take other, specific actions to affect it."
"Ah, just as the things a person does can affect the feelings of others towards him or her, but that is a result of specific events, cause and effect."
"Exactly!" Amoretta said, happy that he understood.
"So what you're saying is that other than the effect Mistress Blan's feelings have on you, there's really no difference between your relationship to each other and, say, my son's and his wife's."
She nodded again.
"That's it precisely. It's really nothing at all like a master and familiar."
"I can see what you mean. Indeed, if she felt capable of giving you orders, then I doubt that her feelings could be defined as love in the sense that you mean it."
She frowned at that.
"I don't think so, no, but it's hard to say. Love is such a complex thing, and I don't have a lot of experience." She smiled shyly at him. "I'm only just a year old, you know."
Riesling smiled back, making a jolly expression on his plump face.
"Well, I'm fifty times that and have plenty of experience with love, and I doubt I have any more answers than you do." He lifted his cup to his lips and finished it off. "Now, when it comes to—" he began, then stopped, shaking his head. "I'm sorry, Miss Virgine, I could pester you all night about all this. Too much magical curiosity, I'm afraid."
"That's quite all right. After all, I only exist because of that."
"Even so, it was very generous of you to talk with me about your nature as a homunculus. I know it's quite vulgar, but you've been quite the object of that curiosity ever since the other Royal Magicians realized that you're not human."
"I've never hidden what I am, and a group of master magicians couldn't be expected to overlook it."
"Even so, there's a difference between admitting known facts and freely talking about private matters. Believe me, I appreciate it."
He nudged the saucer and cup away from the edge of the table so that he wouldn't jostle them, then rose to his feet.
"Please give my regards to Mistress Blan when she returns."
"I will, and good evening."
She rose as well, out of courtesy, and opened the door for him, showing him out. As soon as she'd shut it behind Riesling, a voice spoke up.
"Do you really think that was a good idea?"
"I don't see why not, Gaff."
The young elf had been carrying out various chores while Amoretta and Riesling had been talking. Now, though, he was looking at her with a doubtful expression.
"Giving away all your secrets like that? I don't think Lillet would like that very much."
"It's not a secret that I'm a homunculus, Gaff."
"Yeah, but it's not something that you just go running around telling people, either, not unless you want to be treated like crap because you're not human."
Amoretta frowned at him.
"I realize that it's more convenient not to come out and announce that one might be subject to foolish prejudice, but this is not the same thing at all. Living and working in the palace, it could hardly be expected that skilled magicians, especially alchemists, would not realize the truth."
"Just don't come crying to me if one of them tries to take you apart to see how you tick some day."
"I'm not a watch!" she protested, slightly offended. "And you're wronging the other magicians, besides. Master Riesling is a very nice man and a colleague of Lillet's."
Gaff didn't look all that convinced, even as he went to the table and started clearing the tea things.
"Gaff, is anything else wrong?" Amoretta asked. She wasn't really very good with subtlety, but she had come to understand that the things that people complained about weren't always what was making them unhappy. Like an iceberg, there was often so much more under the surface. "Did something else about my talking with Master Riesling disturb you?"
He looked up at her, frowning.
"Well, I..." he started, then broke off and fell silent.
"Please, Gaff; if I've done something to upset you, I need to know about it."
He bit at his lip, thinking, then sighed heavily.
"All right, I'll say it, though I don't know what good it'll do."
"You can't be sure unless you try," she encouraged.
"Okay," he said, and set the tea tray back down on the table with enough force that it made the dishes rattle. "It's what you said to that guy, about there being no bond between you and Lillet."
"What's wrong with that? It's true, after all. I'm not her familiar, but here by my own will. It's no different than you. You're an elf, but you aren't a familiar bound to Lillet by a magical contract. You're with her because you like her and want to help her, so you've taken the job as her servant."
He shook his head.
"No, it isn't the same. That's the point."
"I don't understand."
"Look, we all know that you left the lab because Lillet loves you and Dr. Chartreuse is too caught up in his books and chemicals to see what's in front of his face. What did you tell him that once, 'what I need is not the lab, but Lillet'? That's the difference, right there."
Amoretta wasn't sure she understood, and said so. Gaff let out his breath in a short, sharp exhalation, obviously upset that she wasn't able to follow where he was going.
"Geez, don't you get it? It's like you said again, just now, to Master Riesling. You need Lillet. You really do need her love, or else bad stuff is going to happen to you, right? It bugs you just to be in a different room from her for more than a few hours. That's different from me, or your cat for that matter. We don't need to be here, we just want to be, 'cause Grimalkin likes you and I... 'cause Lillet would get in trouble if she didn't have me to look out for her."
Ordinarily, she'd have been amused at Gaff's trouble in coming out and saying that he liked Lillet, but she was too worried about what was bothering him for that.
"I see what you mean, now, but why would that bother you?"
He stared at her as if he thought Amoretta was some kind of mental deficient. She felt like she was being one, since obviously she was still missing something of importance.
"This stuff about needing love to survive, it doesn't matter what kind of love it is, right? I mean, if Lillet thought of you like a little sister instead of a lover that would be fine with you?"
"Yes, that's right."
"And it doesn't have to be Lillet's love either, then." He didn't phrase it as a question, and of course he didn't have to, since they both knew it well enough. If Dr. Chartreuse had considered her his daughter, or his lover, or whatever, then things might have been very different at the Silver Star Tower. "Well, this is a big city, and a big palace, with a whole lot of people. So what happens if you meet someone else who loves you like Lillet does? Then you won't need her any more."
Amoretta blinked in surprise, as the pieces of what Gaff was saying came together for her at last.
"Gaff, are you afraid that I might leave Lillet if I met this other person?"
"Well, isn't it possible? You talk about how you need Lillet's love to exist. But what happens if you don't need her?"
Now, she did smile, at the way Gaff had stepped up to defend his employer like that. It was sweet, but more than that it made her happy to know how much the elf cared for Lillet. It couldn't have been easy to speak up and confront Amoretta like that—especially for the young elf, who was embarrassed whenever he had to start talking about emotions. But, for Lillet's sake, he'd done it.
"Thank you, Gaff," she said warmly. "I know Lillet would be very happy to know you were looking out for her." Which probably wasn't quite true inasmuch as she might object to the precise way he was doing it, but Amoretta was sure that Lillet would appreciate the gesture once she got past her own embarrassment at his prying at their private relationship.
"Yeah, maybe, but would she be happy if you left her?"
Amoretta shook her head.
"I'm not going to leave her, Gaff."
"Sure, because she loves you and you need—"
She cut him off, shaking her head.
"No, Gaff, I won't leave Lillet because I love her. Those aren't the same things at all."
She paused for a moment, choosing her words carefully.
"I understand, now, why you were concerned. If all I felt for Lillet was gratitude for the way her feelings sustain me, well, then I can see how what you fear could come to pass. Just because one person loves another, even if the feelings truly are pure love, not tainted by envy or lust or a drive to possess, that doesn't mean that those feelings will be returned. Love can be unrequited, even the truest love."
He frowned at that, looking worried, still.
"Then what you feel for her..."
Amoretta shook her head again.
"What I feel for Lillet has nothing to do with how she feels for me." She paused, then, putting a finger to her lips as she thought that over. "Well, I can't say that, actually. She's shown me things, made me feel things that I'd never imagined before. The sensation of first being embraced in the love of another when all I'd ever known was this hollow coldness in my heart, I could never properly describe it to you. And too, it's because she loves me that she's shown me sides of herself that other people don't always get to see. So her feelings for me aren't irrelevant, now that I think of it. But they're not a direct cause. I love Lillet for who she is, not for what she feels towards me. If I did not return her love, yes, I would still be here, but it would not be the same between us."
She wondered, then, precisely how different it would be, to accept love without returning it. No wonder Gaff was worried, if she herself didn't fully understand it.
"So you're not going to leave Lillet and break her heart?"
Amoretta sighed, realizing that what she was about to say was one of those uncomfortable truths that people tended to avoid stating outright.
"I can't promise that, Gaff. What I feel for Lillet is no different than any other love. I can't swear to you that what I feel now won't change in a month, a year, or a decade, any more than Lillet could promise that her love for me would last forever, or that you'll always feel towards Lillet how you feel now. I can only promise that I'm here with her now not only because of some one-sided arrangement, and that my desire to be here is of my own will as much as yours is."
His face fell, but he surprised her by understanding at once.
"Geez, you couldn't have just made it easy, could you? But I guess that's one of the good things about you: at least people can count on getting a straight answer."
The hinges squeaked as the door swung open.
"I'm home, Amoretta. Hi, Gaff."
Lillet Blan was a fresh-faced girl of seventeen, with long honey-blonde hair, violet eyes, and roses in her cheeks. Still growing, she'd been shorter than Amoretta when they'd met but could now look her in the eye. As always, the mere fact of her presence, the smile she turned on Amoretta, suffused the homunculus with a sensation of warmth.
"I see you had tea. Master Riesling must have stopped by like he said he would." She frowned, then, and added, "He didn't get too pushy with his questions, did he? I know you said you were willing to talk to him about yourself, but if he crossed any lines, let me know."
"Oh, no, everything was fine," Amoretta said, and Lillet brightened at once.
"That's good. He's one of the nicer Royal Magicians, but even so, you know how a magician can get when we get caught up in curiosity about something. And you're a really tempting mystery to explore."
Amoretta giggled at the remark; she was getting better at spotting Lillet's double entendres when she heard them.
"No, it all went very well, and Gaff was here the whole time to make sure that Master Riesling resisted temptation."
Lillet grinned back.
"I never do know what the proper etiquette is for when a homunculus needs a chaperone." She stepped forward, slid her arms around Amoretta's shoulders, and hugged her close. "I love you."
Amoretta sighed happily, letting her head rest on Lillet's shoulder as she returned the hug, savoring the closeness.
"I love you too, Lillet." Then, thinking of her talk with Gaff, she added silently, And I know it's selfish, but I truly pray that it will stay that way forever.